Keith Scholey witnessed his first cheetah hunt at the age of 8. He did not have a camera that day to record the event, yet the experience left a profound and lasting impression on him. Born in Kenya, not far from the locations brilliantly depicted in Disneynature’s African Cats, Scholey, that day, knew his future would somehow involve the animals of Kenya.
Scholey, whose British accent and wavy, greying hair, make him better suited for a desk at a multi-national company than crouched behind a camera in the arid African Savanna, produced and directed African Cats. Opening on Earth Day, April 22, African Cats tells the story of the real-life love, humor and determination of the majestic kings of the savanna.
Beginning his career as a zoologist, Scholey’s leap to wildlife filmmaking was “a lucky break,” he admits. The chance to tell a story featuring the cats he grew up respecting in “his own backyard” was an opportunity of a lifetime. To be sure, Scholey’s primary focus was on the animals’ journey.
But, there was another, almost equally compelling story to tell. The action unfolds in the southwest region of Kenya known as the Masai Mara National Reserve. Roughly 580 square miles in area, the Mara borders its larger, more famous neighbor, the Serengeti.
“The Masai Mara is a protected area,” says Scholey, “but the population of Africa is increasing very quickly, which will put huge pressures on wildlife areas across the country. It’s going to take a huge amount of will and effort if we want to be sure these places survive for future generations.”
“It would be great if people saw the film and thought about these issues,” Scholey continues. “But the goal of the film is to engage people with these remarkable creatures, to understand their lives and feel enveloped in their world. If you make an emotional connection, then you are going to think, ‘This is a world we have to save.’”
The film stars Mara, an endearing lion cub, who strives to grow up with her mother’s strength, spirit and wisdom; Sita, a fearless cheetah and single mother of five mischievous newborns; and Fang, a proud leader of the pride who must defend his family from a rival lion and his sons.
To Scholey, the cats are the stars. “A great movie needs great characters and African cats are vivid and memorable characters who lead incredibly dramatic lives. They really are nature’s movie stars in waiting. So, here we had the chance to make a real-life Lion King and a film with just as much emotion and humor and excitement as anything Hollywood can offer.”
In the end, African Cats is a dramatic, true-life story about love, loss, rivalry, courage and triumph over adversity. A cheetah stars as the fiercely protective mother and lions are tapped as competitors for the best land and resources. Underscoring the naturally dramatic life of these creatures, Scholey routinely refers to Sita, Mara and the other animals as the “stars” of the film and he describes a cheetah hunt as the “car chase sequence.”
Scholey’s deep admiration and love for his “stars” is evident even now, as the film is about to be released globally. Filming of the movie took the better part of 2 ½ years. During that time, Scholey and the rest of the production crew became emotionally attached to the animals. “You can’t spend all this time with these animals and not become personally involved with them,” Scholey explains. Yet, they were determined to showcase the animals behaving as real animals do. They adopted and enforced a strict “no interference” rule. “No matter how much we wanted to get involved, we did not.”
“They live such dramatic lives and often such hard lives and display such courage,” says Scholey. “It is almost Shakespearean.”
Keith Scholey is still very much like the 8-year-old boy who witnessed his first cheetah hunt. This time, fortunately, he remembered to bring along a few cameras.
Contributed by: John Marchese (NDD#172) John is the DDL Media Relations Blogger.